Russia's Sergey Lazarev (C) reacts during the final vote counting during the Eurovision Song Contest final at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, on May 14, 2016.
Russia blames politics for Eurovision loss
03:38 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Mayhill C. Fowler is an assistant professor of history at Stetson University, where she teaches and researches the cultural history of Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe. She is the author of a forthcoming book, “Beau Monde at Empire’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine.” The opinions expressed here are hers.

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Fowler: Russian judges 'should get over it' when it comes to Ukraine's Eurovision Song Contest victory

Both Russia and Ukraine have a long history of political art, she says

CNN  — 

When we think of the Eurovision Song Contest, what we likely imagine are scenes of kitsch and glitter, and perhaps a few bars of sweeping melody for the more musical among us – not necessarily the stuff of politics or protest.

And yet for the last few days, the Facebook feed of anyone with any connection to Ukraine has been exploding since Jamala – a stage name for Susana Jamaladinova, a trained opera singer – was crowned winner of Eurovision 2016 on Saturday. The Russian judges have complained that Eurovision rules were not followed because Jamala’s song was too “political” and should not have been allowed in the competition.

Mayhill C. Fowler

You couldn’t make up the 2016 Eurovision drama: A Crimean Tatar Ukrainian singer wins with a ballad – dedicated to her great-grandmother! – about Stalin’s 1944 expulsion of the Crimean Tatar ethnic group to Central Asia. That’s why Jamala herself was born in Soviet Kyrgyzstan. Crimean Tatars were only allowed to return home in the 1980s under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

It’s a drama because so many interpret her song, “1944,” to also mean 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine and Russia annexed Crimea. Jamala herself said in an interview that she can’t go home and see her sick grandfather, and that current events inspired her music.

And frankly, the Russian judges should get over it.

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Ukraine's Jamala wins Eurovision competition
04:01 - Source: CNN

What does “political” even mean? The stipulation against “lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature” is sandwiched between a regulation against protesting Eurovision itself and one that prohibits “swearing or other unacceptable language.”

So presumably, it’s about keeping the competition wholesome. Like the Olympics. We’re all about sport – or music! – here, and so we put aside our tensions for the good of the global community.

But guess what? In this case one Eurovision country has invaded and taken territory from another Eurovision country, and there is a war between two Eurovision countries. How is that not going to shape the competition?

In truth, it’s also a little late for Russian officials to be crying foul about art as politics. The line between “culture” and “politics” in Eastern Europe has always been tenuous. Under authoritarian regimes, whether 19th century imperial or 20th century Soviet, people could not express themselves politically. So art acquired more importance; songs became vehicles to convey layers of meaning in a country without a parliament or transparent voting.

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Actor Orlando Bloom visits Ukraine for UNICEF
02:30 - Source: CNN

The song “1944” is about …1944. Jamala dedicates the song to her great-grandmother and it honors those Crimean Tatars who suffered under Stalin’s policy. Russian judges could have reacted quite the opposite, embracing the mutual suffering of those who experienced World War II and Stalin. In fact, Jamala’s great-grandfather, like many great-grandfathers, was away fighting in the Soviet Red Army.

So it’s a song of a Soviet tragedy, and since Russia is not the USSR, the song could be understood as a common experience shared between Russia and Ukraine. After all, today’s Ukraine and Russia both belonged to the Soviet cultural space.

But the judges, as others have, instead interpreted the song as having a 2014 subtext. Despite Crimean residents voting in 1991 for an independent Ukraine, Putin invaded Crimea in March 2014 and instigated a referendum under military presence that brought Crimea officially “back” to Russia.

If you invade a country, art will most likely follow. That, after all, is what artists do – they respond to the world around us and represent it back to us, the audience. When a singer’s country has been occupied and she can’t go home and see her family, a song may well indeed emerge.

Elderly women pray during a rally on Independence Square in Kiev on February 21, 2016.
Protesters of the Radical Right Power organization pitched tents on the square and declared the "Third Maidan", demanding the resignation of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his governmant. / AFP / SERGEI SUPINSKY        (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukraine in political crisis as 'heavy weaponry' returns
07:39 - Source: CNN

And that song might be entertaining. You can see the votes and note that viewers in Russia voted for Jamala, and voters in Ukraine voted for Russian entry Sergey Lazarev. Now, the Russian judges gave Ukraine no votes, but the viewers in Russia placed Ukraine in second place. And Ukrainians put Russia first.

What does this disparity between viewer voting and jury voting mean? It might mean that ordinary voters cared less about political overtones than the judges. It might mean they liked the catchy tune, the swirling light effects, or Jamala’s snazzy Crimean Tatar-inspired costume.

And actually, focusing on the complaints of the Russian judges misses the larger story of whether culture – art, a song – can shape politics. For Ukraine, it’s monumental that a song about Crimean Tatars won a competition. Ukraine’s challenge today lies in to what degree they can institutionally embrace their own diversity.

Moreover, tragic though the loss of Crimea is – and I do think it’s tragic – it’s an easy story to support. The Russian occupation is wrong because we just don’t change borders on a whim these days, and the human rights violations of Crimean Tatars are unquestionable. Who doesn’t love a catchy song with a subtext of protesting an occupation?

eurovision tolmachevy sisters
Ukraine and Russia face off at Eurovision
04:42 - Source: CNN

As it turns out, lots of us really do love them. Eurovision is such a spectacle precisely because it embraces this overlap between culture and politics. Eurovision is popular across Russia and Eastern Europe, countries that were former Soviet republics or Soviet satellite states.

So even if the songs do not seem to have lyrics infused by current political events, Eurovision watchers enjoy the post-Soviet politics of who votes for whom. It’s the politics that makes the culture entertaining.

And think about this: What will songs about the war in Eastern Ukraine sound like, and will they be as embraced as this ballad of foreign occupation? And for the audience of Eurovision the question remains: Can a song about refugees shape European policies towards refugees in the biggest refugee crisis since World War II? Can we listen to Jamala’s catchy tune and hear not a lament about Crimea, but rather the lament of anyone who could say, “They come to your house / They kill you all”?

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Mayhill C. Fowler is an assistant professor of history at Stetson University, where she teaches and researches the cultural history of Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe. She is the author of a forthcoming book, “Beau Monde at Empire’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine.” The opinions expressed here are hers.